Variety (Part Four)

by Leah Nicholson

 

    Time is not fake, exactly, but one should hesitate to say it’s real. 

  

    It exists as a concept, of course. Time has always been the untouchable idea around which society (for whatever reason) has structured itself. You can’t keep it, catch it, or hold it. You can’t see it in the street or wave to it in the park, and even if you could, you wouldn’t, because the generally accepted response to seeing others in public is to pretend you didn’t and keep walking. Many friendships are maintained this way, in fact, and would implode if otherwise altered. Time, however, is like beauty; neither physical nor visible, not quite definable, yet your grandmother, second aunt, and various corporate industries insist rather violently that it’s real. 

 

    The difference here is that beauty, both in its perception and definition, must change with time, while time has never once felt the need to change with beauty. On the contrary, it doesn’t change at all. One thing happened once, and then something else happened, and the first thing was forever doomed to be classified as the past. Then more things kept happening, constantly, always, and occasionally never. Trouble is, no one is quite sure when that was. 

 

    Not that it matters, of course. It’s in the past, and as everyone inevitably learns, the past is sufficiently, assuredly, and entirely dead. 

 

~ part four ~ 

 

April 13th, 1864 – 4:17PM 

 

    It has been well established that currently—whenever currently may be—Lydia Barrington is dead. In the year 1864, however, she was several other things: alive (this is important), observant, pretty, and undeniably cunning. One had to be, whilst they knew such a woman as Annabelle Jane Dellwood. 

 

    Miss Barrington kept this virtue in mind as she and her fiancé stepped into Mrs. Dellwood’s home on the very same Wednesday evening on which she had invited them. Mr. Jonathon Halwith was dressed in what most people mistook to be his finest suitthough it actually ranked somewhere around third or fourth. A pocket watch sat tucked into his right pants’ pocket, a cigarette case resting securely in the other. He looked to be the “perfect specimen”, as some people might say. “Some people”, in this case, are matchmakers, scientists, and horse breeders. 

 

    Lydia, aside from the obvious wariness written over her delicate features, looked her very best. She always made it a point to do so, and rooted her reasoning in the logic that, if she was remembered for nothing else, she ought to be remembered as lovely. Her red hair, which one might call auburn and be able to get away with it, was styled meticulously, and the green shades of her dress did not conflict with her color scheme in any way. Green was a color suited to her skin tone and eyes, and with her hair gave her the appearance of a rather sophisticated forest nymph. Lydia knew this, and acted accordingly. 

 

    Annabelle, however, was not there to greet them as they made their way inside. Lydia instead found herself face to face with one Gerold Corey, a shrewd businessman whose business remained rather a mystery. He was clearly rich, though, and so asking what it was he did seemed to most people an act of foolishness—if it made him money, what business was his business to anyone else’s business? Certainly not harmful, because as only the nobility could attest, money never brought anyone any harm. 

 

    Lydia did not share this view, but she didn’t bother to ask Mr. Corey anything about the matter. Before she became engaged to Jonathon, Corey had been a potential suitor. He didn’t appear to remember that fact, an oversight that Lydia found remarkably insulting, and so she adopted a rather cold attitude in his presence. 

 

    Furthermore, she simply didn’t like him. There’s nothing wrong with this, but since Lydia was the old-fashioned type who needed a concrete reason to dislike people, she conjured up a variety of factors. Gerold Corey was too level-headed, too clever, too polite, and too likable to plausibly be genuine; his mustache irked her, though why exactly that was she couldn’t say; his wealth was too vast, yet he didn’t even have the decency to act extravagant (for if you’re going to be ridiculously rich, you ought to be ridiculous in every other aspect, Lydia always thought); and finally, he had a way of speaking that made you feel as though he knew something that you did not. This, without a doubt, was the worst offense—it was also, ironically, one that Gerold Corey, Annabelle Dellwood, and Miss Lydia Barrington herself all shared. 

 

    Mr. Corey looked up at the young couple’s arrival and smiled in that same aforementioned manner. “Halwith,” he greeted, addressing Jonathon and thus not addressing Lydia. “I wasn’t certain you were going to come. Wearing your finest suit, I see, quite right. These are the occasions to do so, I’m told.” 

 

    “Hardly my finest,” said Jonathon, “and hardly an occasion, really. I don’t see how Mrs. Dellwood has it in her to host a gathering every week.” 

 

    “Stamina,” explained Corey, and when Jonathon looked confounded did not elaborate. He deigned to notice Lydia. “Miss Barrington, said Gerold. 

 

    “Mr. Corey, said Lydia. 

 

    They left their conversation at that, Lydia leaving with her head held high and dragging Jonathon along by his arm—discreetly, of course. 

 

    After waiting approximately four more minutes (the type that last sixty seconds, mind you), Annabelle herself made her way over to the couple to greet them. “Lydia, love,” she beganoffering up a particularly welcoming grin. “I truly am thrilled you could make it. Gerold Corey came as well, did you see him?”  

 

    “I did,” said Lydia, flatly. 

 

    “Marvelous, isn’t it? I didn’t think he would come but he did. And he brought his pipe! A pipe to a Wednesday gathering, can you believe that? Silly thing to do, smoking, and so frightening I would drop dead if I tried. It’s truly a wonder people do it at all. Isn’t it a wonder, Jonathon?” 

 

    There were two essential responses to hearing Annabelle Dellwood speak: confusion and intimidation. “I don’t wonder at it,” Jonathon replied, more confused than intimidated. “I’ve brought my own pipe, myself.” 

 

    “Then of course you should join Mr. Corey, shouldn’t you?” 

 

    “I believe I should,” he agreed, and, not entirely certain of what just occurred, Jonathon Halwith went to join all the respectable pipe-owning gentlemen who had congregated in the residence. 

 

    Annabelle watched as he left, then turned back to Lydia. “What a bore it is you’ve decided to marry. Couldn’t you find someone more interesting?” 

 

    “Interesting isn’t a requirement for me, Anna.” Lydia smiled. “I get enough of that from you.” 

 

    “Certainly you do.” Annabelle’s blue eyes lit up as she leaned closer, suddenly whispering. “Have you heard?” 

 

    “I believe I’m about to. Why have you gone so quiet?” 

 

    “Come into the parlor.” As Annabelle took her arm and led her (or rather, pulled her) through the house, she went on, half rambling in a way Lydia found not at all characteristic. “There have been robberies all along the street recently. Mrs. Polluck had some of her jewelry stolen, rubies if she tells it true, along with some documents her husband owns. She claims she saw the two thieves as they leapt from the balcony.” 

 

    Lydia gave her a look. “Leapt? From a balcony? 

 

    “That part sounds false, I know, but it’s not just PolluckTodgers, Grant, Jameson, Ash, all notable names have had some sort of valuables taken. That emerald necklace Mrs. Todgers loves to brag about is missing as of this morning, and the poor thing’s beside herself.” 

 

    “How terrible,” said Lydia, feeling somewhat disconcerted. 

 

    “At least try to sound like you care, darling.” 

 

    “I thought I did. 

 

    Anna paused as they reached the parlor, looked around, and whispered, “It wasn’t you, was it?” 

 

    “Annabelle!” Lydia stared at herappalledAnnabelle laughed, drawing a few eyes but no comments—you never commented on the things Annabelle Dellwood did without explicit invitation. 

 

    Unless you were Lydia. “Honestly, Anna, I don’t understand you,” she scolded. “You say such awful things, I might think you were a gossip. Your sense of humor will get you into trouble one day.” 

 

    “There are many things that might get me into trouble one day.” Still smiling, Annabelle sat Lydia down on the sofa, a light sort of crème colored seat built wide enough for two, embroidered with a gold pattern of sprawling roses. Anna was very fond of roses. She was also very fond of gold.  

 

    Lydia leaned back against it, folding her hands in her lap. “You aren’t sharing this with me because you’re frightened, are you? You don’t seem the sort. 

 

    “I’m not. What do I have to fear? My husband can handle things quite well, I’m sure.” 

 

    That was blatantly untrue, for multiple reasonsLydia chose to bring up only one. “Isn’t your husband set to depart? Some business in America, I’d heard.” 

 

    “Oh yes, he’s off to Boston. His revolver, however, is staying here.” 

 

    “How . . . comforting.” Lydia decided she would rather not discuss shooting people, criminals or otherwise. Annabelle had a way of being disturbingly upfront about violence, and she’d never quite gotten used to the terminology. “If Mr. Dellwood is off to Boston, perhaps he’d benefit more from meeting your American friends than I.” 

 

    Annabelle arched a brow. “Is that so?” 

 

    “It seems so to me. They know the layout, don’t they?” 

 

    “Of all of America? I hadn’t thought to ask. They’re from New York, you see.” 

 

    “Does that mean something?” Lydia inquired. 

 

    “Only that New Yorkers have a tendency for running late.” Annabelle made a show of looking around the several chattering faces, mostly ladies but a few gentlemen, all conversing with eerily similar expressions. Their laughter felt like a hundred echoes, their smiles sculpted by the same meticulous hands. 

 

    Lydia didn’t complain. Their falseness was the simple kind, readable as an old book, the type of lies any respectable young woman would grow up around—and Lydia Barrington was nothing if not respectable. But Annabelle’s sort of falsehood . . . that was something entirely different. “Perhaps your friends are engaged elsewhere,” she suggested. “They must be very busy, exploring London.” 

 

    Anna had a talent for reading the thoughts behind people’s words. Lydia found it incredibly irritating, albeit somewhat impressive. “Don’t worry,” her friend said, with grating cheerfulness. “They’ll be here soon.” 

 

    Annabelle Jane Dellwood must be given some leeway in this descriptor, for she had no way of knowing that soon wasn’t entirely accurate.  

 

    For Gayle and Liam Jones, the time was always now. 

 

Later 

(sometime around 227 years, 3 months, and 2 days later) 

July 13th, 2091 – 5:01PM 

 

    Owen Brown is closing his briefcase as Oliver steps into his office. It’s a thin casing, silver in color, with what looks like a dime-slot beneath its handle. It must be the keyhole, Ollie supposes—for one of those old-fashioned briefcases that still need keys. He clears his throat when he’s through the door. “Sir?” 

 

    The CEO of Crescent looks up and smiles a smile far too cheerful for a Monday evening. “Oliver Grant, is it? I haven’t seen you since this morning!” He ushers him in. “Don’t stand in the doorway, lad, come in, come in. Variety, greet Oliver, won’t you?” 

 

    There’s a blink of blue, and there VARIETY stands—or rather, hovers. Her not-heels never genuinely touch the ground. “Greetings, Crescent attendant Eleven-O-Ninety-Eight.” She smiles, not at all the way Owen Brown did, and tilts her not-head to the side. “Your shift ended two minutes ago. Please remember to stall your timecard or fill out an overtime report before you exit the building.” 

 

    “Oh. Right.” Ollie clears his throat (again) and steps further inside. VARIETY’s blue hologram phases out of his path and reappears in the far right corner of the room. “But I’m not Grant, sir. It’s Halk. Oliver Halk. From—from accounting.” 

 

    “Halk, yes, I should have known it was you. What with the glasses and all!” Brown laughs as though it’s the most amusing situation he’s ever experienced. “But whatever happened to Grant, then?” he asks. “Little old Oliver Grant, I saw him just recently. Said hello and everything, a regular good morning like they used to in the old days. Not that the days are too old around here—nothing old or young about us, of course, of course—but Oliver Grant said good morning right back, that he did.” 

 

    “Olivia Grant,” Oliver corrects him, glancing warily at the clock. It seemed to be ticking rather slowly. “She quit, Sir. A while ago. Today was her last day.” The information doesn’t seem to process. “She’s moving to France. Submitted her two weeks’ notice . . . two weeks ago. 

 

    “France of all places? Hardly worth seeing, I say. At least in this century.” He laughs again, louder. VARIETY phases next to him, wearing the programmed feature amusement. Ollie thinks it looks more genuine Owen Brown’s laugh sounds. But then, he shouldn’t be doing much thinking. 

 

    Except . . . 

 

    Oliver braves speaking—this time without clearing his throat. “Sir, I’ve been going over payments. Checks, I mean. For the employees.” He bites the inside of his cheek. Mr. Dickinson told me to make sure he’d signed all the paychecks, so I had a reason for it.” 

 

    “Of course, Halk, of course. What is it then? See people are making too much more than you?” Owen Brown laughs. It’s his custom to do so after virtually everything he says, it seems. No one has ever bothered to ask why. “Put in a request with Variety and I’m sure you’ll get that raise. She never misses a beat, you know.” 

 

    This is an exaggeration. If you were to request that the program VARIETY play 999 tracks, each at a slightly different speed, from any musical genre in the world, she would not miss a beat. At track 1,000, however, there is a 43% chance that one beat in every 400 would, plausibly, be skipped. 

 

    Not that she would let anyone notice. 

 

    “It’s not that I want a raise, Sir,” says Ollie, uncertainly. “It’s the Jones siblings. Liam and Gayle Jones. You’ll remember Gayle, from security.” 

 

    “Security, eh?” 

 

    “She . . . she has three metal limbs,” Oliver says, waiting for it to click. “Bio-mechanical right arm?” 

 

    Owen Brown raises a brow. 

 

    Ollie ventures, “Pink hair.” 

 

    “Ah, those Jones!” Brown nods vigorously. “Of course, yes, yes. Liam and the foster sister, down in mechanics. Or was it engineering? No matter, I suppose, no matter. Variety, when are they again? I swear they’ve gone back sometime, something to do with communications. Time check on Liam and Abigail Jones, if you would.” 

 

    “The scan for Crescent attendants Eleven-O-Seventy-Four and Eleven-O-Seventy-Five is in progress.” VARIETY blinks, smiles, and tilts her not-head to the side. “Personnel Liam M. and Abigail T. Jones have been reassigned—” 

 

    She stops. 

 

    Oliver waits. “Yes? Reassigned where?” 

 

    “Liam and Abigail Jones have been reassigned—” 

 

    Again, VARIETY stops. She blinks, smiles, and tilts her not-head to the right. 

 

    Ollie stares at her for a second. He could have sworn she only ever tilted her head to the left. 

 

    “Ah, yes, reassignment,” says Owen Brown, picking up his sleek silver briefcase again. “Tricky business, that. I’m sure she’ll have the notes straight in a week or so, not to worry. The Jones are no doubt transferring floors, that’s all. Tricky, tricky business. 

 

    Ollie can’t think of a single person who’s ever transferred floors while working for Crescent. “But, Sir, I spoke with Gayle, back before she left . . .” He shakes his head. “. . . I thought—” 

 

    “Oh, no.” The CEO of Crescent Industries holds up his hands, frowning gravely. “Don’t do that, lad. It’s best not, as we all know. Just simple reassignment, that’s all. Time enough to get them their paychecks later, eh?”  

 

    And then Owen Brown does something strange. Holding his briefcase in one hand and a coffee mug in the other, he chuckles. 

 

    It is an action that, Ollie notices, is chillingly different from laughter.